The Internet is a directory, but a good guidebook guides

My next book: Frommer's London 2014

My next book: Frommer’s London 2014

I have turned in the last chapter of Frommer’s EasyGuide to London 2014, the first guidebook to be edited and published by Arthur Frommer since the 1970s. He created the brand in 1957, and he asked me to be the first author of a flagship book when he retook publication. Of course I said yes.

Reinventing a guidebook under the supervision of the man who defines them has had me thinking about what makes a worthy one. I found myself dipping into the archive to look at what Arthur himself did in the 1950s.

Here’s a nugget from the very first guide he wrote, 1955’s The G.I.’s Guide to Travelling in Europe:

“In most of your encounters with British food, you’ll feel that you’re shoveling hay into your mouth.”

Times have changed and that is no longer an appraisal I can agree with, but I instantly loved his pointedness in telling it like it was. One might call it refreshing honesty. But in the framework of writing a guide, it’s what I call telling people what they really want to know.

When he reported from Berlin’s Revi telephone bar, he essentially told male readers if they stood a chance of getting laid:

If you’re even only slightly better looking than Yogi Berra, you’ll receive the greatest egotistic thrill of your life.

Arthur was still at it in 1995, when he wrote Arthur Frommer’s Branson!, a book I deeply admire for being the least punch-pulling guidebook in living history. It’s a guide that, when necessary, openly scorns its subject. This concluded his report of The Baldknobbers, a fun-loving country vaudeville show that’s still a Branson staple:

Dropping their cornpone attitudes, becoming hard-eyed and vengeful, the young men of the ensemble sing, ‘Buddy, you’ve burned your flag, Burning a flag is a crime,’ and so on. The song reminds you of the penchant toward violence that lies buried in gentlest of people hereabouts, and is a grim, unsettling note that really should be dropped.

For the record, The Baldknobbers still end their show with an aggressive patriotic number laced with Jesus and guns, so his pointed words didn’t budge them.

You gotta know when to fold 'em: Arthur Frommer's Branson!

You gotta know when to fold ’em: Arthur Frommer’s Branson!

But they guided well. When’s the last time you saw frank verdicts like that in a guidebook? You don’t. Guides dance around what they really want to say, pretending to not have a firm point of view. And that’s the problem.

The Web is a multiplying mirror. Whatever you plug in, you will return the result you sought, and it will either validate or eliminate the thing you were considering—but only the thing you already had in mind. Guides though, should take the infinite palette of a destination and form a picture.

Travel guidebooks, ironically, lost their way. The error of guidebooks of our generation has been that they think they should be less like the editorial pages and more like directories. The writers don’t make hard choices, they list every major available option, much like a gazetteer of the nineteenth century. Poisoned by a fear of offending and possessed by the generic, guides lost the point of being guides. They became catch-alls, overseen by desk-bound editors who have neither an experience of their destinations nor a concept of the particular ethics of the writers they pay to cover them. Texts were inherited by one writer and then the next, and no could be sure who wrote what.

Gradually, carefully pruned and opinionated advice was replaced by bland subject-verb descriptors more akin to a reference book’s. Guides became almanacs that risked only timid, ginger hints at supplying context amidst the profusion of information. Hoping to be all things to all readers—a committee marketing decision, not an editorial or ethical one—they present every detail of a place on a heaping plate rather than suggesting to the reader which bite to take.

If you followed the lead of many modern guidebooks, you would find yourself eating hay in no time.

Guidebooks as we know them have declined not simply because reading habits are shifting. The product shifted first. Guidebooks became dispensable because guidebooks, as we now know them, do not retain many of the characteristics—concision, opinion, direction—that once made them an important tool for sorting through the chaff. It’s been so long since guidebooks guided that we forgot what it means to do so.

Editors always tell me to “write as if you’re taking to a friend,” but they rarely mean it. When I talk to friends, I plainly tell them what stinks. But when I turn in opinionated copy that says what stinks, editors get spooked off the trigger, and they tone it down.

Black's Guide Book England for Tourists

Black’s: Built on opinion

So for the Frommer’s Easy Guide, I did something bolder. My guide to London contains a section called Overrated Attractions—something no previous Frommer’s guide has done. Tourists want to be warned off the dumb stuff. They want the bottom line of what stinks.

I couldn’t ignore that. In my guide to London, I openly tell readers not to bother with the tacky, non-traditional (I mean, ABBA music?) ritual of Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace. I owe it to readers to warn them about a waste of time in the same way I’d warn my friends and family.

The previous Frommer’s guide to London opened its discussion of Changing the Guard by saying it is “terribly British and a bit dull, and who are we to buck the trend?” I’ll tell you who—you’re the guide! Guidebooks that force readers to read between the lines to discern the true worth of the places they cover are a big reason why people find themselves turning to the Web—it’s now the only place to get point-blank feedback. We miss the honesty of appraisal.

People seem not to realize that all the historic guidebook series were associated with a name, which meant a lot more than just a brand: Baedecker’s, Black’s, Appletons, Murray’s. They were imprinted with a name because they came with a mind and a voice. Just as we choose one news channel or one news blog over another, you bought the voice you liked, from the brutal xenophobia of Favell Lee Mortimer, who trained English children to want to either stay home or correct foreigners, to the cool appraisal of Baedecker, who furnished lawyerly dispassion without bloating to the size of today’s tomes. They were the product of someone whose judgment plucked something in you.

The guidebook’s identity crisis can still be fixed with the addition of cojones, and there are a few more reasons I’m not ready to call them replaced by Web searches. One is that smartphone batteries aren’t strong enough yet, and most people would rather conserve their phones for photos rather than use them for much else. Many people can’t access the Web internationally because of locked phones or prohibitively expensive roaming plans. Still more of us would rather not advertise our wealth by pulling out expensive gadgets on foreign street corners.

But even if all these problems are solved, guidebooks still aren’t finished. Their essential and necessary qualities can always simply gravitate to digital formats. Because people will always crave an expert perspective. It’s our nature. The church, politics, and your daddy’s advice would all be screwed without that.

So what did the most successful guidebooks sound like before they became corporatised omnibuses?

In 1907, Mae Douglas Frazar’s Practical European Guide did what it could to supply some nuts and bolts, but otherwise adopted a resigned tone. The hotels in Spain, it advised condescendingly, “are not like those in America, but they offer the accommodation that the Spanish consider desirable, and we go to Spain to see Spain.” (You can almost hear Frazar sigh.)


Favell Lee Mortimer, one of the most cynical voices in travel

Favell Lee Mortimer, one of the most cynical voices in guides

Appletons’ Companion Hand-Book of Travel had praise for nearly everything it saw fit to include—except for some of the slaves it encountered on a plantation in South Carolina: “No evidence of taste or industry was to be seen in their hingeless doors, their fallen fences, or their weed-grown gardens… Many of them sell to their master in the morning the produce they have stolen from him the previous night.” Abhorrently racist, yes—but I suppose it’s a useful opinion for abhorrently racism tourists.

(Incidentally, that must also be one of the first guides to offer information that was embarrassingly out of date—the imprint was 1865, two years after Emancipation. The next time I get an email from a hotel complaining that the phone number I list changed two months ago, I’m going to refer them to this.)

Brown’s Picturesque Guide to Edinburgh and Its Environs (1863): “The architectural effect of the Castle has been much marred by a clumsy pile of barracks on its western side, which, observes Sir Walter Scott, would be honoured by a comparison with the most vulgar cotton-mill.” (Sorry, Black’s, they’re not only still there, but they’re also protected now.)

Good guides are unafraid to offend in their aim to save you time or money. Take Frank Schoonmaker’s Through Europe on Two Dollars a Day (1933), which like many guides of yore, was a pseudo-narrative with no listings:

“There is no city in the world that tries so hard to be beautiful as Munich. And, perhaps for that very reason, it fails… There are over forty museums in Munich and thirty-five of them aren’t worth going to see except as evidences of the Bavarians’ undying interest in the arts—for no sooner does a man get two dozen paintings together in Munich than he builds an edifice along the general lines of the Parthenon, and opens it to the public.”

He also remarked on how prosperous everyone looked—but never mentioned the Führer. Travel writers are critics, not clairvoyants.

The legendary Temple Fielding, whose contribution to unsheathed opinion was mighty yet is now mostly forgotten by today’s focus-grouped marketers, once wrote, “Of all the groups of surly, devious, tip-hungry ruffians we’ve met in our travels, the Venetian gondoliers take our personal booby prize,” and my favorite, in warning visitors from picking up girls in one nightclub, “Sexy blonde: Take a good look at her these days; she’s more than likely to leave you a souvenir. The venereal rate from one end of Europe to the other has never been so high; there’s a new strain of gonorrhea so hardy that it eats sulfa and penicillin for breakfast.”

As the author of a family guidebook, I refrain from advising readers on venereal disease—although if you ask me personally I’m happy to enlighten you.

What will guidebooks become? Everyone thinks they know, but they don’t.

One thing is clear: The history of successful guiding, printed or digital, shows that people respond to opinion.

Temple Fielding went further than most of us would prefer today

Temple Fielding said more daring things than most of us would prefer today, but man was he fun.

5 Responses to “The Internet is a directory, but a good guidebook guides”

  1. Anne Fruitcake

    Love your “pauline frommers guide to London” I think it would even make a great read if you’re not going to travel there ever 😉 I truly never read a travel guide like that before – hope the other writers in the series have the same sense of humour and cover all the places I want to travel, so I’ll never need a boring guidebook ever again. Thanks!

  2. Ryan Levitt

    When I was growing up, I used to read travel guidebooks instead of fiction. Coming from a suburban Canadian background, it was my way of escaping from the fact that I lived in (what I thought was) the dullest corner of the planet. So it was quite a dream come true when I became a guidebook writer. Imagine my disappointment when my editors spent absolutely no time editing my copy except to cut out any witty asides, personal comment or colour. Instead, I would get constant back-and-forth on the listings. To the editors, lord help us if the listings were incomplete.

    I remember one time when I was writing a guidebook to Egypt and was told that my section discussing car rental in Cairo was incomplete. My original copy said ‘Renting a car in Cairo should not be attempted’ along with a few witty reasons why it wasn’t a wise idea. The editor said I needed to change everything and provide at least three rental listings with contact information and edited out all my description as to why driving a car in Egypt is a bad move, clinically insane and ridiculous to attempt.

    There were lots of other cases like this (such as being told I had to rewrite a listing that said the venue opened sunrise to sunset in order to create actual hours of operation despite the sign on the wall testifying that the hours were sunrise to sunset OR being informed that I was wrong about a museum being open because someone on TripAdvisor said it was despite the fact that I had been up to the doors the week prior and seen tumbleweed, three locks and a sleeping guard inside the main entrance).

    The problem is editors are being instructed to create listings guides and forget that people want the guidance to tell then what is worth their time and what isn’t. In many cases, guidebooks include every major site in a given town. But what I want to know is what site is worth going to and what isn’t. Too many times I have wound up at the ‘State Museum of Boring’ simply because it was one of the four locations listed in a town. When I could have left given town a few hours before to explore the next stop on my list.

    So if colour is coming back to guidebooks then I say Hurrah. Good luck to Frommer’s. I’d buy the books if this is the case and even pitch to write a few if the opportunity arose.

    • Jason Cochran

      Ryan, I totally sympathize with your example about driving in Cairo. It rings so very true. Hell, just crossing the street in Cairo is taking your life in your hands, but the administrators/bureaucrats/editors back at the Home Office wouldn’t know about that or have the latitude to tailor advice accordingly. They are assigned to assemble a guidebook by a formula, just as other workers assemble Whoppers or Big Macs. Standardization on that level is not only proof that a publisher is no longer furnishing answers that readers truly need, but also that it’s gotten too large and too unwieldy to be thoughtful about travel advice. They are directories, not guides, and by crossing that line, they assure their own obsolescence. I assure you the Frommers are not like that. In fact, in my London book, I say exactly what you wanted to say about Cairo. I say (essentially) you shouldn’t rent a car, stop considering it, and I’m not listing rental car companies for your own good. Readers are not stupid, and they know when you’re giving strong advice and when you’re phoning in a rote list. The Frommers agree, and it’s being published that way.

  3. Ryan Levitt

    PS If you want to see how a guidebook can be both incredibly informative and really funny, I recommend reading Perfumes: The A-Z Guide by Luca Tobin and Tania Sanchez. Find someone who can create a guide series with their level of wit and wisdom for travel and you’re on to a winner.